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New Left Review I/15, May-June 1962

Edward Thompson

The Free-born Englishman

A chapter from a book shortly to be published by Gollancz on the formation of the working class.

When reform agitation resumed in 1816, it was not possible, either in London or in the industrial North or Midlands, to employ a ‘Church and King’ mob to terrorise the Radicals. From time to time, between 1815 and 1850, Radicals, Owenites, or Chartists complained of the apathy of the people. But—if we leave out of account the usual election tumults—it is generally true that reformers were shielded by the support of working-class communities. At election times in the large towns, the open vote by show of hands on the ‘hustings’ which preceded the poll usually went overwhelmingly for the most radical candidate. The reformers ceased to fear ‘the mob’, while the authorities were forced to build barracks and take precautions against the ‘revolutionary crowd’. This is one of those facts of history so big that it is easily overlooked, or assumed without question; and yet it indicates a major shift in emphasis in the inarticulate, ‘sub-political’ attitudes of the masses. We must look in many directions to find reasons for this change—the Jacobin propaganda of the 1790s, the painful experiences of the Napoleonic Wars, effects of industrialisation, the growing discredit of the monarchy (culminating in the Queen Caroline agitation of 1820), increasing popular alienation from the established Church, the educative propaganda of Cobbett and of the cheap Radical press after 1815, the ambiguous influence of the Irish immigration (which—while a source of new tumults—was never a source for tame ‘Church and King’ mobs).

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Edward Thompson, ‘The Free-Born Englishman’, NLR I/15: £3

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